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The High School Dropout Who Learned Opting Out Isn’t a Permanent Strategy

• ExcelinEd

Brooke Haycock made the transition from defiant high school dropout to college graduate, a journey that turned her into a passionate advocate for education reform. Haycock recently chimed in on the testing debate, arguing that opting out of tests may be possible in school, but it certainly is not possible in life for those seeking success in a meaningful career.

Read Haycock’s powerful piece “When Tests Get Real” published in the US News & World Report for a look at the bigger picture of this important issue.

To the young leaders, the organizers, the rage against the machiners: I was you. Spelled America with three Ks. Wrote angry poetry on notepaper in the back of the class – when I managed to attend. Drew raised fists along the margins of the low-level dittos handed out by teachers in my urban high school. Despised conformism in all its forms and found refuge in the coffee shop down the street from the school where smoke and anger and fierce individualism hung thick in the air, and ink scratched dark on the page.

I didn’t want to be reduced to a number or a statistic, a score or a grade, a label or a stereotype. I filled in the bubbles on tests in poetic form, ABABC. And then I dropped out. And that’s when tests got real.

Then I was studying alone for the GED, then the SAT, then the community college placement test on breaks at the coffee shop where I worked. Plowing through a year at a commuter school, where too many went and too few stayed, and fighting my way to university. And then working the next 15 years for a civil rights organization fighting to secure equal educational opportunities for all students.

It took all that for me to finally understand that you actually can’t opt out, walk out or otherwise check out of tests as a permanent strategy. Not if you want to get anywhere. Because, regardless of your feelings about them, tests will never stop. On the way to wherever you want to go lie a series of tests – whatever your direction, whatever your goal. There are the college admissions tests. The Armed Services qualifying tests. The get-a-job tests. The get-a-better job tests. The licensure tests. The promotional tests. Moments where you have to prove yourself – your skills, your knowledge, your merit, your determination.

While they now call the tests you take in school “high stakes,” they are the lowest you will ever encounter. And the only ones where, if you don’t do so well, somebody actually has an obligation to help you do better. Because after you leave the comfortable – or even not-so-comfortable – nest of high school, it is all on you. You alone will be held accountable for what you know and what you don’t. What you were taught and what you weren’t.

Because you can’t walk out of the ACT or the SAT. 
Not the GRE, LSAT or the bar exam. 
Not the cosmetology exam, the Test of Adult Basic Education or any professional exam. Not the brief your boss and the organization or company where you want to work asks you to write. So now is not the time to opt out, despite what some adults might tell you. Because opting out, quite frankly, is what some adults want you to do. Because, at the end of the day, the fewer students show up for that test, the fewer students schools are accountable for teaching and the less the system has to change.

What I learned in my own journey through education, and later as an advocate, is that sometimes the most radical thing you can do to change the system is not to secede, but to succeed. That sometimes fighting the system means working from inside it, pressing for the things you and your peers need. To raise hands, raise issues and raise stakes by participating, instead of by withdrawing. To call for attention – and for change – so that all students get the skills and knowledge they need to thrive. Not just some.

And one of the best chances we have to do that right now – as tedious or regimented as they may feel right now – is through these new tests, which finally measure what matters instead of just how many bubbles you can fill in.

Don’t play into anyone’s hand. Or fall for the things you’re told about those tests by adults who may actually be more preoccupied with their job security than your education. Don’t play the pawn in this game. Stay in the game, learn it and play the king.

Brooke Haycock is a former high school dropout who now writes on educational justice issues and student experiences for The Education Trust.

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